All beef cattle start their lives on mother’s milk and are then weaned to graze on pasture grasses until they reach about 400-500 lbs. When calves reach these weights they are sold off to feeders where they either remain grass fed, or are sent to feedlots. In each case, the calves will remain in the pasture or feedlot until they reach desired harvest weights.Cattle are bred to be consumed for food. Each feeding method has benefits and detriments that vary markedly, not only in diet, but in cost, taste, consistency and time. Is one system better than the other? The answer is truly subjective – personal preference, palates, and beliefs play heavily on consumer preference.
Grain Fed Beef Grain fed cattle are started on grass and then sent to feedlots to be finished on formulated feed rations designed to make the animals grow as much and as fast as possible. In most cases, the formulated feed contains as much as 75% corn grain. Grain fed cattle normally reach harvest weight between 18-24 months of age.
What exactly is a ‘feedlot’? The beef industry finishes grain fed cattle in feedlots in order to produce the type of carcass desired by the American consumer.
All feedlots are essentially the same in construction, layout, design and purpose with key components being: feed mills, to store and mix feed rations, pens, where cattle are gathered, and feed bunks, where cattle eat and drink water. Cattle are closely monitored in feedlots, efficiently fed and given unlimited access to clean water year round.
Animal stress is also closely monitored by feedlot managers. Animals under stress are more likely to get sick; sick animals do not gain weight and will most likely lose money for the operator. Most modern feedlot operators employ animal handling protocols to reduce stress in accordance with the guidelines set forth by renown animal behavior authority, Dr. Temple Grandin.
Grain fed cattle are viable in the marketplace because they are available throughout the year. Where grain feed cannot be grown due to unfavorable climate conditions, it can be easily trucked in from other areas of the country. Most feedlots operate in the Midwestern corn belt states.
Grass Fed Beef Grass fed cattle start on grass and remain on grass until they reach harvest weight – usually between 30-36 months of age. Grass fed cattle must reside where grass is easily available; inclement weather may force cattle to be moved to pastures where grass exists. During the winter months when grass is dormant, grass fed cattle must be supplemented with feed, usually hay and grass silage, to maintain nutrition and sustain their grass fed status.
Grass fed beef is also very lean. The low fat content in grass fed beef requires greater attention to cooking to prevent an unpleasant eating experience. The tenderness of grass fed steaks can also be inconsistent. Thus, grass fed is better when cooked slower than its grain fed counterpart. It is further essential for grass fed beef to be aged correctly for adequate muscle fiber release to prevent toughness. When properly aged and cooked, grass fed beef is delicious. Some even say it tastes the way beef “used to taste”.
Increased costs, due to the lengthier amount of time it takes for grass fed cattle to reach harvest weight, are passed on to consumers. Ultimately, grass fed beef costs more than grain fed beef.
Grass & Grain Benefits
* Grass fed beef is high in Beta-Carotene which is converted to vitamin A (retinol) by the human body. Vitamin A is important for normal vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division, and cell differentiation. Additionally, vitamin A creates a barrier to bacterial and viral infection and supports the production and function of white blood cells.
* Grass fed beef typically has 3 times the amount of vitamin E found in conventional grain fed beef. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that may help prevent or delay coronary heart disease, block the formation of carcinogens formed in the stomach, and protect against cancer development. Vitamin E may also improve eye lens clarity and reduce or prevent the development of cataracts.
* The ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6 fatty acids in our diet plays a prominent role in the prevention and treatment of coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. The American Medical Association and the World Health Organization recommend a ratio of roughly 1:4 parts Omega-6 to one part Omega-3. The Omega-3 content in grass fed meat increases by 60% and produces a much more favorable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio than grain fed beef.
* Grass fed beef is leaner and higher in protein than grain fed beef and averages 1.5 times more protein than typical USDA Choice grain fed beef. Research indicates that eating lean beef can help lower total, LDL and VLDL cholesterol, and triglycerides while increasing beneficial HDL cholesterol. It can also help lower blood pressure, aid in weight loss, and improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control.
* Grain fed beef is juicier and more tender than grass fed. Grain fed beef has a higher fat content; higher fat levels deliver more flavor.
* The fat in the grain of grain fed meat acts as a buffer in cooking which makes it more forgiving to various cooking methods. Grain fed beef can be cooked to perfection in a variety of ways.
* Grain fed grades out higher in quality scoring and is desired by most American palates. Grain fed beef is coveted by restaurants offering USDA Prime and Choice beef.
* Grain fed beef is available in All Natural programs which deliver additional quality benefits without added hormones or antibiotics.
* Grain fed cattle are less costly to raise; grain fed beef prices are less than grass fed beef. Grain fed beef is also in ample supply.
Whatever your preference, there are economic, environmental, dietary and culinary benefits to both grain fed and grass fed beef.
In my opinion, one does not eliminate the other, rather both options enhance your menus and provide numerous opportunities to delight your guests.